Hurling money at it won’t work, Blade

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Not many of us today remember the name of Samuel Pierpont Langley who was born 1834 and died early 1906. Langley was an American academic, astronomer, physicist, inventor of the bolometer who attempted to make a working piloted heavier-than-air aircraft – what we today call an airplane.

Langley’s first success came in May 1896 when a model flew slightly more than a kilometre after a catapult launch from a boat on the Potomac River -- a distance ten times longer than any previous experiment. On November 11 that year another model flew more than 1,5 kilometres.

In 1898, based on the success of his models, Langley received a War Department grant of $50 000 and $20 000 from the Smithsonian to develop a piloted airplane.

Now $70 000 was a huge amount of money in those days. Langley promptly did what people do to this day when given a government grant: he threw money at the problem.

He hired the most expensive people and manufacturers he could find. He gave large amounts of money to one contractor to build an engine, and when that contractor failed, he got someone else to finish the job.

His models had no landing gear – his plan was that each aircraft would be single-flight models designed to be shot out of a catapult on take-off and then to crash land on water. The aircraft would then be rebuilt before its next flight.

I’m not making this up.

Langley had two cracks at getting his “aerodrome” (as he called it) to fly. In the first attempt on 7 October 1903, the wing clipped part of the catapult, leading to a plunge into the river. On the second attempt, 8 December 1903, the craft broke up as it left the catapult. The pilot was recovered unhurt from the river both times. Newspapers made great sport of the failures, and some members of Congress strongly criticized the project.

No doubt Langley would have continued to squander massive amounts of money on his single-use aircraft over the next several years if not for the fact that on 17 December 1903, two brothers who had dropped out of high school and ran a bicycle repair shop successfully built and flew the first airplane.

The Wright Brothers did not have government grants, their engine was built in house by their shop mechanic in about 6 weeks, and their total cost was under $1 000.

In many ways, the story of Samuel Pierpont Langley is not unlike that of former communist turned Minister of Higher Education with a R1,1 million BMW Blade Nzimande.

Nzimande last week unveiled a Green Paper highlighting what he sees as shortcomings in our country’s higher education framework. Over the next 20 years, he wants to increase the number of places at university from 900 000 to 1,5 million and at FET colleges from 400 000 to four million, and generally make this freely available.

In other words, he is going to throw money at the problem.

But what exactly is the problem?

The recent report of the National Planning Commission says: “The success rate of FET colleges is extremely low. The dropout rate is estimated to range between 13 percent and 25 percent per annum.

“Training providers, further education and training colleges have very weak relationships with workplaces, leading to inappropriate or incomplete training.

“Despite spending large amounts of money, levy-funded institutions – the SETAs – have not made a major contribution to resolving the problems in skills development.”

(Minister: this is on page 282 of the 444 page report. I would advise you to read the entire section – in fact the entire report – in great detail, because it lays out with painstaking detail why everything you plan to do in your Green Paper is just plain wrong.)

Now contrast Nzimande’s road paved with good intentions to the words of Austria’s finance minister, Maria Fekter, recently interviewed by the Financial Times. She said: “We have the lowest unemployment in the eurozone and we’ve been especially successful in keeping youth unemployment down. Our apprenticeship system is recognised as preparing young people well for working life.

“To be honest, the youth unemployment data are more important to me than any educational rankings.”

And that, really, cuts to the chase. We don’t need more people with degrees; we need competent people.

Otherwise, we ain’t gonna fly.